Why we're taking the UK Government to court

Why we're taking the UK Government to court

Cumbrian residents are among those taking the Government to court over a newly approved coal mine as the world faces stark warnings on climate change writes local campaigner Ruth Balogh

For more than 40 years I’ve been lucky enough to call West Cumbria my home. Having spent most of my adult life here, raising a family along the way, I’d say I’ve come to know a thing or two about the area – and importantly, how it has changed.

What I’ve always loved is the striking contrasts between the unassuming coastal towns that line our shores and the wild majesty of the Lake District. There’s something quietly, yet distinctly special, too often overlooked or mischaracterised by outsiders.

Those less familiar with England’s northern reaches might not know West Cumbria was once a thriving beacon of Britain’s industrial might.

As a major supplier of the once-vital coal and iron ore that helped to build modern Britain, West Cumbria boomed at the industrial revolution’s height. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the coal industry saw a steep and steady decline, all but folding for good during the Thatcher years with Cumbria’s last coal mine closing its doors in 1986.

With fewer opportunities for those in mining strongholds like West Cumbria, communities reliant on these industries suffered. Through decades of underinvestment since, they’ve never quite recovered.

It’s no wonder, then, that some people are hailing the approval of the country’s first deep coal mine for over 30 years – and the offer of new jobs in Cumbria – as a saving grace.

The decision, made by Communities Secretary Michael Gove in December last year, will see over 23 hectares carved out of the Cumbrian landscape to make way for the colossal new mine, including a huge new building – the size of 21 double decker buses – right in the heart of the unspoilt Pow Beck Valley.

While concerns about jobs are certainly justified, we must be able to look at the bigger picture. One that considers new fossil fuel development in the context of today’s world: a deepening global climate emergency, a rapidly declining market for coking coal in steelmaking, and the potential for green jobs that can bring areas like West Cumbria the prosperity they deserve.

By far the strongest reason for consigning coal to the history books is its devastating impact on our climate.

For far longer than many governments and fossil fuel firms care to admit, scientists have known that our reliance on these polluting fuels has driven climate breakdown. Just this week the IPCC delivered a “final warning” on the climate crisis. Warnings from the world’s top climate scientists about what might happen without action are what first prompted me to join my local Friends of the Earth group 40 years ago. 

It’s estimated that the new mine will produce nearly three million tonnes of coal per year until 2049, totting up to a projected 220 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent – that’s the same as half of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions for 2021. In the last few years as coordinator of West Cumbria Friends of the Earth, I have joined with other local activists to oppose the new mine at Whitehaven, knowing its approval is not in our best interests.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Cumbrian communities are very much on the frontlines of the climate emergency. As an area highly susceptible to extreme weather such as heavy rainfall and flash floods, many Cumbrians are all too familiar with the effects of a warming planet. In fact, two of Cumbria’s worst flooding events in nearly 600 years have taken place in the last 15 – something made more likely due to climate change. It’s clear that any short-term gains offered by the mine are eclipsed by the more insidious and lasting consequences of burning more dirty coal.

In rubber-stamping the mine, the UK government has undermined its ability to influence other countries and encourage them to take bolder climate action, instead setting a dangerous precedent.

This is one of the primary reasons Friends of the Earth recently announced it is taking the government to court. It’s our belief that Michael Gove did not properly consider the climate impacts of the mine before giving it the green light, including compelling evidence raised by top experts during the planning inquiry in 2021. 

What also fails to stack up is Gove’s claim that the mine will be ‘net zero’. This theory relies heavily on its emissions being outsourced using carbon offset credits – typically through tree-planting schemes or community projects unproven to have a positive impact on global emissions at the scale needed.

Crucially, however, carbon offsets do not count towards the UK’s carbon budgets – the maximum amount we can emit in order to limit global heating. Therefore, we argue, approving the mine on the basis of their use was unlawful.

The climate impacts aren’t the only reason the mine isn’t viable. It’s been widely reported that the UK steel industry doesn’t actually need or want the mine’s coal, knowing it must move to greener production methods to stay competitive with its European counterparts. The government is also reportedly about to support the UK steel industry to go green in yet another contradictory move, signalling that the market for the mine’s coal is already diminishing before it has even opened.

The need for quality local jobs remains an understandable sticking point. Recent analysis found that a local programme to ensure all Cumbrian homes are properly insulated could create just as many, if not more than offered by the mine – bringing with them other benefits such as keeping Cumbrian homes warmer, lowering energy bills and reducing the amount of carbon unleashed into our atmosphere.

Based on the climate impacts alone, the case against the mine is overwhelming. But the reasons used to justify its approval are seriously flawed with no grounding in common sense – not for Cumbrian people, not for our country and not for the planet.

Cumbrians are proud of their mining heritage, but we must now look to the industries of the future to uplift us all. Let’s hope our leaders soon grasp the economic and social opportunities that moving away from fossil fuels can bring.

Ruth Balogh is coordinator of West Cumbria Friends of the Earth.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram